Mario Careaga was taken into custody Thursday after a Broward judge upheld his guilty verdict in the DUI manslaughter of Miami Heat dancer Nancy Lopez-Ruiz.
Careaga, 46, was found guilty of DUI manslaughter Wednesday after a jury deliberated for more than 10 hours over two days. But the verdict was immediately called into question amid allegations that one juror had exhibited an anti-gay bias while the trial was still going on.
Defense lawyer David Bogenschutz asked Broward Circuit Judge Ilona Holmes to declare a mistrial, arguing that the bias violated his client's right to a fair trial.
But Holmes turned him down. "There is no evidence to suggest that he was convicted by this jury because of sexual preference," she said.
She agreed with prosecutor Scott Raft, who argued that none of the jurors who reached the verdict confirmed the bias allegations.
The case was decided by six jurors, all men. But during the trial, two alternate jurors, a man and a woman, also listened to the evidence presented by Bogenschutz and prosecutor Kristin MacKenzie. The alternates were dismissed when deliberations began Tuesday afternoon, but the male alternate contacted Bogenschutz and accused one of the remaining jurors of prejudging the case and mocking Careaga's homosexuality.
According to the alternate, the offending juror called Bogenschutz an expletive after the defense lawyer presented his opening statement last Friday. The same juror allegedly said a defense witness was "lying through her teeth," made fun of Careaga's voice while the defendant was testifying, and entered the jury room saying "We the jury find the defendant…" before being cut off by his fellow jurors. The allegations all concerned statements made before the jury was supposed to be deliberating.
Careaga was accused of driving drunk on East Sunrise Boulevard on Sept. 10, 2010, and smashing into the victim's stopped motorcycle, killing her. Careaga, who admitted consuming some alcohol at a private party at the Galleria mall earlier that night, denied being drunk or impaired. Toxicology tests showed otherwise – Careaga's blood alcohol level was at .24 percent an hour and a half after the crash.
Careaga also said the accident took place because he was focusing on an erratic driver behind him and he had taken his eyes off the road in front of him.
Careaga faces a minimum of four years in prison and a maximum of 15 when he is sentenced May 5.
Bogenschutz said he plans to ask for the minimum sentence. He will also appeal the conviction and ask Holmes to set a bond so that Careaga can remain free while the appeal works its way through higher courts.
Careaga's life partner, Ray Stapleton, said it was a case where no one walked away victorious.
"Please, please continue to pray for Nancy's family," he said. "They're good people. … Nobody won. Nobody won in this situation. Bad things happen to good people."
Stapleton, who was with Careaga the night of the crash, was called to testify by the prosecution. He told the jury that Careaga had two vodka cocktails and part of a glass of scotch at the mall, and that he was not impaired when they left. But he also said he had been drinking himself.
In closing arguments Tuesday morning, MacKenzie accused Stapleton of downplaying the amount of alcohol involved, either because he cared for Careaga or because he had also been drinking.
The victim's mother, Adela Lopez-Ruiz, said the verdict needs to serve as a lesson against driving while intoxicated.
"Please, do not drink and drive," she said. "It's a deadly combination that destroys many, many people's lives. There are consequences. … You're never going to have peace when you lose your child, because she's never going to be back with me. He's going back with his family one day."
From our media partner Sun Sentinel